Since I became a writer for B/R, I have written several pieces regarding racism and discrimination in Italian soccer. Racist incidents made major news so many times last year that it felt like one was reading about it every week.
The actions of Kevin-Prince Boateng—then of AC Milan—were by far the most high-profile. The midfielder walked off the field midway through the first half of a winter-break friendly between the Rossoneri and fourth-tier side Pro Patria after he and his black teammates were subjected to monkey chants.
That incident and several others regarding Milan's Mario Balotelli by Inter fans and Roma fans traveling to the San Siro—among a slew of others—prompted a series of new rules from the Serie A. It doubled the minimum ban for a player guilty of racially abusing an opponent from five to 10 games and made a partial stadium closure the minimum penalty for a club whose fans were guilty of making discriminatory chants.
Secondary offenses would lead to full stadium closures, point deductions, forfeiture of a game and ultimately disqualification from a competition.
This is where we come to a classic case of good intentions producing unintended results.
There have been a rash of partial closures around the Serie A this season—and few of them have been for racism. Instead many teams have had large segments of their stadiums closed due to what has been interchangeably called "territorial discrimination" and "geographical discrimination," with the former being a bit more popular.
What is territorial discrimination? To compare it to another sport in another country, it's a bit like baseball fans at Yankee Stadium chanting "Boston sucks" during a game between the Yankees and their archrival Red Sox.
Italy is a country with strong regional identities and, on occasion, animosity. Chants in which fans trumpet their region's superiority over the other have been a part of the Italian soccer scene for what seems like forever.
Since the beginning of the season, FIGC has been placing these chants on the same level with the monkey calls that drove Boateng from the field and the anti-Semitic chants that contributed to the two-game stadium ban UEFA hit Lazio with during the Europa League last year. The results have been bad for the Italian game in two distinct ways.
First, and most obvious, is that the stadiums are empty. Economic downturn, bad results and poor safety ratings have already driven down fan attendance in the Serie A recently—most notably at Cagliari, who are only allowed a few hundred fans at their home matches due to stadium safety concerns.
Now FIGC has worsened that condition by forcibly closing large segments of the stadiums. Such closures kill the atmosphere of a stadium and make playing in the league a much less desirable prospect.
Imagine what the impact on the worldwide stature of the league would be if someday the Derby della Madonnina was played at an empty San Siro? Or if Juve and Napoli clashed in a top-of-the-table fixture with no fans in the seats? It would hurt Italian teams in the transfer market as well—what player wants to come to play in front of vacant seats?
The second—and potentially more serious—mark against these rulings is that not only have they not stopped the fans from doing what they've been punished for, they've encouraged them to keep doing it. The Guardian's Tom Kington published an interesting report in October after early-season rulings against Milan showed just how ineffectual these new rules have been.
After AC Milan was hit with a partial stadium closure for making disparaging chants about Naples during their September 22 match with Napoli, fans on both sides criticized the decision. Napoli ultras turned to irony to protest the next week. They unfurled a banner that referred to Milan's chants reading "Naples cholera-sufferers. Now close our curva!" and made several self-deprecating chants.
It didn't deter Milan fans either. During a game at Juventus their traveling supporters made more anti-Naples chants, garnering a full stadium closure that was later overturned on appeal.
Even fans of Inter got in on the act, urging supporters around the league to make similar chants to show FIGC what a weekend without fans would look like. It's a string of civil disobedience that would make 19th-century American essayist Henry David Thoreau proud—but it could end up turning into something more disruptive if it continues.
In the wake of this discontent, clubs have been increasingly critical of the new rules. In December, Gazzetta Dello Sport (via ESPNFC's Ben Gladwell) quoted Maurizio Beretta, president of the Lega Serie A, as saying "It is there for all to see the fact that the entire sanctions mechanism has been drawn up badly. It was wrong to think of punishing thousands of good fans for the excesses of only a few dozen or at times a few hundred people."
He went on to say, "The system does not work because instead of reducing the influence a small minority can have, their voice has instead been strengthened...There is a strong desire to have a new look at the sanction mechanism."
What should FIGC do with territorial discrimination rules?
FIGC has already provided some more flexibility to the sanctioning process, but the best solution is probably to abandon territorial discrimination sanctions altogether.
These sanctions came from noble intentions. But FIGC, in their attempt to curb racism in their game, is now risking turning the league into a punchline by overreacting to what amounts to a child on a schoolyard telling a "Yo mamma" joke.
Such chants are childish and sometimes rude, but at the end of the day they pale in comparison to what the updated rules were meant to prevent. That's what Italy's soccer authorities should be focusing on—not this.